Archive for June, 2011


Treasure Island

I’ve always been drawn to pirate stories. Being from a place where pirates used to visit and we still have people who dress up as them, I suppose it’s in my blood. The freedom of the open seas is a romantic thought, with salt air in your face and knowing there are still untamed lands out there, far more than the world of today where every square of land is either a Super Walmart paved with an oversized parking lot, or a gang of Starbuckses, all bunched together like grapes with their own oversized parking lots. So, after snoozing through another Pirates of the Caribbean movie, it was time to read a classic.

I’d been wanting to read it for a while but ran into a snag along the way. This book was a Christmas gift when I was an early teen. Possessing all of the tact teenagers have, I showed my displeasure at not getting whatever video game I wanted at the time. Probably Mortal Kombat. Still embarrassed here. The book got shelved and I never moved it, so of course it was no where to be found when I finally looked. And by no where I mean like the middle of western Georgia. Realizing it was as lost as Lindsey Lohan’s sobriety, I bought a new one, the Barnes and Noble edition. Why? It was cheaper. Otherwise I wouldn’t have, as such editions always seem as wrong to me. Not from the text, but the presentation. It’s along the lines of “Opera for Dummies.” This time it’s “Pirates for Dummies.” Again, it was cheaper. I shook off the stigma and bought the darned thing. This one:

It’s one of those books between the size of your standard paperback and hardback edition. These are the most comfortable and easiest on the eyes. You get the clear large font of a hardback without it feeling like holding a brick, a brick with high cotton content paper. Really, the pages in this book are high quality. It’s the stuff they make you use for masters theses. All books should be designed like this. It’s also kind enough to explain all the pirate jargon with handy footnotes. There’s even a nice picture of the author, Robert Louis Stevenson, on the inner cover looking like Remus Lupin from Harry Potter.

“Aye, yer a pirate, ‘arry.”

There’s another reason I wanted to read this, and that’s to help with my own writing since my current work has a similar setting. I wanted to dive into the time period. Have a chance to see the way of life and learn the nautical terms. For the most part it provided. I now know what a palisade and a coracle are. It also helped refresh some other terms that had grown fuzzy in my head.

Anyone who’s had to read this in a grade school English class has already analyzed all the fun out of it. Or maybe you just watched the movie and faked it. With that said, Long John Silver’s a great character, from the way he talks to his ambiguous morality. We actually don’t see so much as feel his presence for a good part of the book. Only in the last act is he there consistently. Mostly the book follows the young Jim Hawkins. It’s a coming of age story in the guise of a treasure hunting adventure, where he leaves the comfort of home and has to fend for himself and make some difficult decisions for men who can be friend and foe at the same time. We get sailing, rum drinking, gun battles, betrayal, murder, superstition, a parrot who won’t shut up, and even a marooned man. From the environs to the characters, the world is vivid and the pacing just right.

Surprising how Jim concludes his tale too.

***** of *****

Dragonflight

My first exposure to Anne McCaffrey’s world of Pern came in the mid 90s when I bought The Dragon Lover’s Guide to Pern from a bookstore that likely no longer exists. I wasn’t a Pern fan at the time. Knew nothing about it really, but I wanted another collection of dragon art. This was before I could hop on the internet and find thousands of  pictures in seconds (or minutes in those dial up days.) On the way home from the store I skimmed through the book in the back of my parents’ old Dodge and enjoyed the pictures, though I did find the dragons’ eyes a bit strange. I grew interested in reading this series until I saw something shocking.

The dragons communicate with people through telepathy.

That was enough to turn me off from reading the series. Petty, yes, especially coming from someone who saw nothing wrong with magic in a story, but it did. Maybe because it’s something I couldn’t see myself doing and so I couldn’t connect with the characters speaking through their minds. In retrospect, I’m sure that it would have gone over better if telepathy was part of the games I played as a kid instead of shooting fireballs and cure spells. By the time I made it home with the book–it was a good hour ride through the boonies to the nearest decent bookstore–I was ready to shelve it. That I did. My only exposure to the series for the next fifteen years came from seeing the books in stores. It turns out there were quite a few. From time to time I’d see even more. McCaffrey must have been a good writer to have so many works out.

I kept this in mind. After years of maturing I decided to give Pern another chance. To lessen my risk, I bought a copy at a used bookstore. I have an 80’s edition of this:

My copy has a corner taken out the cover and plenty of spine creasing. The edges of the pages all look slightly warmed, if not burnt.

The series has more of a sci-fi feel to it than fantasy, dealing with planets, stars, time travel and teleportation. Wizards and standard magic are absent and the setting takes place in an alien world instead of the usual old European influenced landscape. No Jar Jar Binks. Don’t worry. Technically the dragons aren’t even dragons, called so by the humans as they’re similar in appearance. These dragons grow very attached to their riders, to the point where they give up on life if the partner dies. Losing a friend is hard enough, but breaking that telepathic bond must be worse. I’m sure you could get a similar effect by taking a World of War Craft junkie from his account.

The book is made up of several published short stories  from the 60s. Fortunately it all flows together as a cohesive whole. However, McCaffrey uses new terms without explanation. It can be frustrating trying to understand what is happening or what some ideas mean. Yes, the book has a glossary in the back, but a simple description when appropriate would have saved needless flipping back and forth.

The story centers around a young woman named Lessa who bonds with a new queen dragon, but most of the interactions with her are with the human characters, most of which have apostrophe names: F’lar, R’gul, L’tol, and so on. It’s exciting that we have intelligent dragons that can communicate with people (or only their riders, unless you’re Lessa. Then you can talk to any of them) but McCaffrey denies the reader much from them. I grew to like Mnementh in particular, but we rarely hear what he has to say. Despite the bonds, it feels the dragons are more tools than characters we can get to know. Maybe this changes in later books. I hope so. It is a novel idea to have dragons who are more than just evil beasts at least. I’m sure this concept inspired future authors like Naomi Novik.

The main threat comes from an orbiting star that every few hundred years, called turns, drops spores onto the planet that destroy everything they touch. It’s about to happen again and only dragon fire can stop them. Convenient.

McCaffrey’s innovative world and treatment of dragons makes this an important work from a historical perspective. However, a good story is weakened by human characters who have a knack for being unpleasant. F’lar in particular comes of self serving and how he doesn’t explain himself to Lessa is frustrating. That can work, but here it frustrates the reader too because he or she is left in the dark when something needs to be understood to make sense of the world. His romance with Lessa is hard to swallow, though misery loves company. I understand their dragons had an impact on the union, but that doesn’t excuse an unlikable character we need to sympathize with. The underdeveloped dragons weaken the story too.

Still, it’s worth checking out if you’re a fantasy or sci-fi fan. There isn’t much, if anything else like it. It’ll stick with you long after reading.

***1/2 of *****

First Post

Greetings,

This will be my nook to review and comment on books, movies, games, and at times, music I’m writing. Most of which will be fantasy related to keep some semblance of uniformity, but if I check out something else I feel strongly about, then it’ll go up here too. Growing up, I always found media with a fantasy element far more interesting, even if only a mild one like Animal Farm. I won’t deny those other works put forth by English teachers to be great in their own way, and certainly they have lessons for us as humans or as writers, but I enjoy a get away from reality too. There’s comfort in visiting new worlds, meeting new beings, and seeing extraordinary events we never could by stepping out our front doors.

Besides, who doesn’t love a good dragon story?

Up next: Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight.

And yes, I know I’m asking for it from the fanboys. Cheers.